The Two Neighboring Families | A Christmas Greeting

We really might have thought something of importance was going on in the duck-pond, but there was nothing going on. All the ducks that were resting tranquilly on the water, or were standing in it on their heads—for that they were able to do—swam suddenly to the shore: you could see in the wet ground the traces of their feet, and hear their quacking far and near. The water, which but just now was smooth and bright as a mirror, was quite put into commotion. Before, one saw every tree reflected in it, every bush that was near: the old farm-house, with the holes in the roof and with the swallow's nest under the eaves; but principally, however, the great rose-bush, sown, as it were, with flowers. It covered the wall, and hung forwards over the water, in which one beheld the whole as in a picture, except that everything was upside down; but when the water was agitated, all swam away and the picture was gone. Two duck's feathers, which the fluttering ducks had lost, were rocking to and fro: suddenly they flew forwards as if the wind were coming, but it did not come: they were, therefore, obliged to remain where they were, and the water grew quiet and smooth again, and again the roses reflected themselves—they were so beautiful, but that they did not know, for nobody had told them. The sun shone in between the tender leaves—all breathed the most beautiful fragrance; and to them it was as with us, when right joyfully we are filled with the thought of our happiness.

"How beautiful is existence!" said each rose. "There is but one thing I should wish for,—to kiss the sun, because it is so bright and warm. The roses yonder, too, below in the water, the exact image of ourselves—them also I should like to kiss, and the nice little birds below in their nest. There are some above, too; they stretch out their heads and chirrup quite loud: they have no feathers at all, as their fathers and mothers have. They are good neighbors, those below as well as those above. How beautiful existence is!"

The young birds above and below—those below of course the reflection only in the water—were sparrows: their parents were likewise sparrows; and they had taken possession of the empty swallow's nest of the preceding year, and now dwelt therein as if it had been their own property.

"Are those little duck children that are swimming there?" asked the young sparrows, when they discovered the duck's feathers on the water.

"If you will ask questions, do let them be a little rational at least," said the mother. "Don't you see that they are feathers, living stuff for clothing such as I wear, and such as you will wear also? But ours is finer. I should, however, be glad if we had it up here in our nest, for it keeps one warm. I am curious to know at what the ducks were so frightened; at us, surely not; 'tis true I said 'chirp,' to you rather loud. In reality, the thick-headed roses ought to know, but they know nothing; they only gaze on themselves and smell: for my part, I am heartily tired of these neighbors."

"Listen to the charming little birds above," said the roses, "they begin to want to sing too, but they cannot as yet. However, they will do so by and by: what pleasure that must afford! It is so pleasant to have such merry neighbors!"

Suddenly two horses came galloping along to be watered. A peasant boy rode on one, and he had taken off all his clothes except his large broad black hat. The youth whistled like a bird, and rode into the pond where it was deepest; and as he passed by the rosebush he gathered a rose and stuck it in his hat; and now he fancied himself very fine, and rode on. The other roses looked after their sister, and asked each other, "Whither is she going?" but that no one knew.

"I should like to go out into the world," thought one; "yet here at home amid our foliage it is also beautiful. By day the sun shines so warm, and in the night the sky shines still more beautifully: we can see that through all the little holes that are in it." By this they meant the stars, but they did not know any better.

"We enliven the place," said the mamma sparrow; "and the swallow's nest brings luck, so people say, and therefore people are pleased to have us. But our neighbors! Such a rose-bush against the wall produces damp; it will doubtless be cleared away, and then, perhaps, some corn at least may grow there. The roses are good for nothing except to look at and to smell, and, at most to put into one's hat. Every year—that I know from my mother—they fall away; the peasants wife collects them together and strews salt among them; they then receive a French name which I neither can nor care to pronounce, and are put upon the fire, when they are to give a pleasant odor. Look ye, such is their life; they are only here to please the eye and nose! And so now you know the whole matter."

As the evening came on, and the gnats played in the warm air and in the red clouds, the nightingale came and sang to the roses; sang that the beautiful is as the sunshine in this world, and that the beautiful lives for ever. But the roses thought that the nightingale sang his own praise, which one might very well have fancied; for that the song related to them, of that they never thought: they rejoiced in it, however, and meditated if perhaps all the little sparrows could become nightingales too.

"I understood the song of that bird quite well," said the young sparrows; "one word only was not quite clear to me. What was the meaning of 'the beautiful?'"

"That is nothing," said the mamma sparrow, "that is only something external. Yonder at the mansion, where the pigeons have a house of their own, and where every day peas and corn is strewn before them—I have myself eaten there with them, and you shall, too, in time; tell me what company you keep, and I'll tell you who you are—yes, yonder at the mansion they have got two birds with green necks and a comb on their head; they can spread out their tail like a great wheel, and in it plays every color, that it quite hurts one's eyes to look at it. These birds are called peacocks, and that is 'THE BEAUTIFUL.' They only want to be plucked a little, and then they would not look at all different from the rest of us. I would already have plucked them, if they had not been quite so big."

"I will pluck them," chirped the smallest sparrow, that as yet had not a single feather.

In the peasant's cottage dwelt a young married couple; they loved each other dearly, and were industrious and active: everything in their house looked so neat and pretty. On Sunday morning early the young woman came out, gathered a handful of the most beautiful roses, and put them into a glass of water, which she placed on the shelf.

"Now I see that it is Sunday," said the man, and kissed his little wife. They sat down, read in the hymn-book, and held each other by the hand: the sun beamed on the fresh roses and on the young married couple.

"This is really too tiring a sight," said the mamma sparrow, who from her nest could look into the room, and away she flew.

The next Sunday it was the same, for every Sunday fresh roses were put in the glass: yet the rose-tree bloomed on equally beautiful. The young sparrows had now feathers, and wanted much to fly with their mother; she, however, would not allow it, so they were forced to remain. Off she flew; but, however, it happened, before she was aware, she got entangled in a springe of horse-hair, which some boys had set upon a bough. The horse-hair drew itself tightly round her leg, so tightly as though it would cut it in two. That was an agony, a fright! The boys ran to the spot and caught hold of the bird, and that too in no very gentle manner.

"It's only a sparrow," said they; but they, nevertheless, did not let her fly, but took her home with them, and every time she cried they gave her a tap on the beak.

There stood in the farm-yard an old man, who knew how to make shaving-soap and soap for washing, in square cakes as well as in round balls. He was a merry, wandering old man. When he saw the sparrow that the boys had caught, and which, as they said, they did not care about at all, he asked, "Shall we make something very fine of him?" Mamma sparrow felt an icy coldness creep over her. Out of the box, in which were the most beautiful colors, the old man took a quantity of gold leaf, and the boys were obliged to go and fetch the white of an egg, with which the sparrow was painted all over; on this the gold was stuck, and mamma sparrow was now entirely gilded; but she did not think of adornment, for she trembled in every limb. And the soap-dealer tore a bit off the lining of his old jacket, cut scollops in it so that it might look like a cock's comb, and stuck it on the head of the bird.

"Now, then, you shall see master gold-coat fly," said the old man, and let the sparrow go, who, in deadly fright, flew off, illumined by the beaming sun. How she shone! All the sparrows, even a crow, although an old fellow, were much frightened at the sight; they, however flew on after him, in order to learn what foreign bird it was.

Impelled by anguish and terror, he flew homewards: he was near falling exhausted to the earth. The crowd of pursuing birds increased; yes, some indeed even tried to peck at him.

"Look! there's a fellow! Look! there's a fellow!" screamed they all.

"Look! there's a fellow! Look! there's a fellow!" cried the young sparrows, as the old one approached the nest. "That, for certain, is a young peacock; all sorts of colors are playing in his feathers: it quite hurts one's eyes to look at him, just as our mother told us. Chirp! chirp! That is the beautiful!" And now they began pecking at the bird with their little beaks, so that it was quite impossible for the sparrow to get into the nest: she was so sadly used that she could not even say "Chirrup," still less, "Why, I am your own mother!" The other birds, too, now set upon the sparrow, and plucked out feather after feather; so that at last she fell bleeding in the rose-bush below.

"Oh! poor thing!" said all the roses, "be quieted; we will hide you. Lean your little head on us."

The sparrow spread out her wings once more, then folded them close to her body, and lay dead in the midst of the family who were her neighbors,—the beautiful fresh roses.

"Chirp! chirp!" sounded from the nest. "Where can our mother be? It is quite inconceivable! It cannot surely be a trick of hers by which she means to tell us that we are now to provide for ourselves? She has left us the house as an inheritance; but to which of us is it exclusively to belong, when we ourselves have families'?"

"Yes, that will never do that you stay here with me when my household is increased by the addition of a wife and children," said the smallest.

"I shall have, I should think, more wives and children than you," said the second.

"But I am the eldest," said the third. They all now grew passionate; they beat each other with their wings, pecked with their beaks, when, plump! one after the other was tumbled out of the nest. There they lay with their rage; they turned their heads on one side, and winked their eyes as they looked upward: that was their way of playing the simpleton. They could fly a little, and by practice they learned to do so still better; and they finally were unanimous as to a sign by which, when at some future time they should meet again in the world, they might recognise each other. It was to consist in a "Chirrup!" and in a thrice-repeated scratching on the ground with the left leg.

The young sparrow that had been left behind in the nest spread himself out to his full size. He was now, you know, a householder; but his grandeur did not last long: in the night red fire broke through the windows, the flames seized on the roof, the dry thatch blazed up high, the whole house was burnt, and the young sparrow with it; but the young married couple escaped, fortunately, with life. When the sun rose again, and every thing looked so refreshed and invigorated, as after a peaceful sleep, there was nothing left of the cottage except some charred black beams leaning against the chimney, which now was its own master. A great deal of smoke still rose from the ground, but without, quite uninjured, stood the rose-bush, fresh and blooming, and mirrored every flower, every branch, in the clear water.

"Oh! how beautifully the roses are blooming in front of the burnt-down house!" cried a passer-by. "It is impossible to fancy a more lovely picture. I must have that!"

And the man took a little book with white leaves out of his pocket: he was a painter, and with a pencil he drew the smoking house, the charred beams, and the toppling chimney, which now hung over more and more. But the large and blooming rose-tree, quite in the foreground, afforded a magnificent sight; it was on its account alone that the whole picture had been made.

Later in the day two of the sparrows who had been born here passed by. "Where is the house?" asked they. "Where the nest? Chirp! chirp! All is burnt down, and our strong brother,—that is what he has got for keeping the nest. The roses have escaped well; there they are yet standing with their red cheeks. They, forsooth, do not mourn at the misfortune of their neighbors. I have no wish whatever to address them; and, besides, it is very ugly here, that's my opinion." And off and away they flew.

On a beautiful, bright, sunny autumn day—one might almost have thought it was still the middle of summer—the pigeons were strutting about the dry and nicely-swept court-yard in front of the great steps—black and white and party-colored—and they shone in the sunshine. The old mamma pigeon said to the young ones: "Form yourselves in groups, form yourselves in groups, for that makes a much better appearance."

"What little brown creatures are those running about amongst us?" asked an old pigeon, whose eyes were green and yellow. "Poor little brownies! poor little brownies!"

"They are sparrows: we have always had the reputation of being kind and gentle; we will, therefore, allow them to pick up the grain with us. They never mix in the conversation, and they scrape a leg so prettily."

"Yes, they scratched three times with their leg, and with the left leg too, and said also "Chirrup!" It is by this they recognised each other; for they were three sparrows out of the nest of the house that had been burnt down.

"Very good eating here," said one of the sparrows. The pigeons strutted round each other, drew themselves up, and had inwardly their own views and opinions.

"Do you see the cropper pigeon?" said one of the others. "Do you see how she swallows the peas? She takes too many, and the very best into the bargain!"—"Coo! coo!"—"How she puts up her top-knot, the ugly, mischievous creature!" "Coo! coo! coo!"

And every eye sparkled with malice. "Form yourselves in groups! form yourselves in groups! Little brown creatures! Poor little brownies! Coo! coo!" So it went on unceasingly, and so will they go on chattering in a thousand years to come.

The sparrows ate right bravely. They listened attentively to what was said, and even placed themselves in a row side by side, with the others. It was not at all becoming to them, however. They were not satisfied, and they therefore quitted the pigeons, and exchanged opinions about them; nestled along under the garden palisades, and, as they found the door of the room open that led upon the lawn, one of them, who was filled to satiety, and was therefore over-bold, hopped upon the threshold. "Chirrup!" said he, "I dare to venture!"

"Chirrup!" said another, "I dare, too, and more besides!" and he hopped into the chamber. No one was present: the third saw this, and flew still further into the room, calling out, "Either all or nothing! However, 'tis a curious human nest that we have here; and what have they put up there? What is that?"

Close in front of the sparrows bloomed the roses; they mirrored themselves in the water, and the charred rafters leaned against the over-hanging chimney. But what can that be? how comes this in the room of the mansion? And all three sparrows were about to fly away over the roses and the chimney, but they flew against a flat wall. It was all a picture, a large, beautiful picture, which the painter had executed after the little sketch.

"Chirrup!" said the sparrows, "it is nothing! It only looks like something. Chirrup! That is beautiful! Can you comprehend it? I cannot!" And away they flew, for people came into the room.

Days and months passed, the pigeons had often cooed, the sparrows had suffered cold in winter, and in summer lived right jollily; they were all betrothed and married, or whatever you choose to call it. They had young ones, and each naturally considered his the handsomest and the cleverest: one flew here, another there; and if they met they recognised each other by the "Chirrup?" and by the thrice-repeated scratching with the left leg. The eldest sparrow had remained an old maid, who had no nest and no family; her favorite notion was to see a large town, so away she flew to Copenhagen.

There one beheld a large house, painted with many bright colors, quite close to the canal, in which lay many barges laden with earthen pots and apples. The windows were broader below than above, and when the sparrow pressed through, every room appeared like a tulip, with the most varied colors and shades, but in the middle of the tulip white men were standing: they were of marble, some, too, were of plaister; but when viewed with a sparrow's eyes, they are the same. Up above on the roof stood a metal chariot, with metal horses harnessed to it; and the goddess of victory, also of metal, held the reins. It was Thorwaldsen's Museum.

"How it shines! How it shines!'' said the old maiden sparrow. That, doubtless, is 'the beautiful.' Chirrup! But here it is larger than a peacock!" She remembered still what her mother, when she was a child, had looked upon as the grandest among all beautiful things. The sparrow fled down into the court: all was so magnificent. Palms and foliage were painted on the walls. In the middle of the court stood a large, blooming rose-tree; it spread out its fresh branches, with its many roses, over a grave. Thither flew the old maiden sparrow, for she saw there many of her sort. "Chirrup!" and three scrapes with the left leg. Thus had she often saluted, from one year's end to the other, and nobody had answered the greeting—for those who are once separated do not meet again every day—till at last the salutation had grown into a habit. But to-day, however, two old sparrows and one young one answered with a "Chirrup!" and with a thrice-repeated scrape of the left leg.

"Ah, good day, good day!" It was two old birds from the nest, and a little one besides, of the family. "That we should meet here! It is a very grand sort of place, but there is nothing to eat here: that is 'the beautiful!' Chirrup!"

And many persons advanced from the side apartments, where the magnificent marble figures stood, and approached the grave that hid the great master who had formed the marble figures. All stood with, glorified countenances around Thorwaldsen's grave, and some picked up the shed rose-leaves and carefully guarded them. They had come from far—one from mighty England, others from Germany and France: the most lovely lady gathered one of the roses and hid it in her bosom. Then the sparrows thought that the roses governed here, and that the whole house had been built on account of them. Now, this seemed to them, at all events, too much; however, as it was for the roses that the persons showed all their love, they would remain no longer. "Chirrup!" said they, and swept the floor with their tails, and winked with one eye at the roses. They had not looked at them long before they convinced themselves that they were their old neighbors. And they really were so. The painter who had drawn the rose-bush beside the burned-down house, had afterwards obtained permission to dig it up, and had given it to the architect—for more beautiful roses had never been seen—and the architect had planted it on Thorwaldsen's grave, where it bloomed as a symbol of the beautiful, and gave up its red fragrant leaves to be carried to distant lands as a remembrance.

"Have you got an appointment here in town?" asked the sparrows.

And the roses nodded: they recognised their brown neighbors, and rejoiced to see them again. "How delightful it is to live and to bloom, to see old friends again, and every day to look on happy faces! It is as if every day were a holy-day."

"Chirrup!" said the sparrows. "Yes, it is in truth our old neighbors; their origin—from the pond—is still quite clear in our memory! Chirrup! How they have risen in the world! Yes, Fortune favors some while they sleep! Ah! there is a withered leaf that I see quite plainly." And they pecked at it so long till the leaf fell off; and the tree stood there greener and more fresh, the roses gave forth their fragrance in the sunshine over Thorwaldsen's grave, with whose immortal name, they were united.